Gabbo; Credit: Etai Fuchs, edited by Gabbo

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A few years ago, D.C. singer-songwriter Gabbo Franks—just Gabbo on the tapes and gig posters—covered up a regrettable high school stick-and-poke tattoo with a more professional rendering of a corn plant. The stalk runs up the side of their left hand, from wrist to pinky knuckle, as a permanent emblem of Hebron, Maryland, the small Eastern Shore town where they grew up. 

“It’s just corn—it’s all just corn,” Franks tells City Paper over breakfast near Mount Vernon Square. “It was this new neighborhood that was formerly a pig farm that my parents decided to buy property on. There were no other kids in the neighborhood, really.” Franks could travel to nearby Salisbury to play music, but they were otherwise left to roam the woods and fields where they could, as cellist Arthur Russell once sang, close their eyes and listen to hear the corn come out.

The crop holds sentimental value for Franks, and it gives Corn, their debut LP as a solo artist (out May 5), its title. They were inspired in part by Russell’s Love Is Overtaking Me, a posthumous collection of folk, pop, and country songs by the Iowa-born composer, who is better known for his contributions to New York City’s avant-garde scene. “I was like, ‘Damn, if he can go back to his roots, then I can go back to mine,’” Franks says.

The songs on Corn draw lightly on the Panda Bear-indebted psychedelia of Franks’ band Moon By Moon and the anti-folk of their past solo releases, but also the sounds of their rural childhood. Franks points to alt-folk acts like Sadurn and Deer Scout for contemporary comparisons, but in writing layered vocal harmonies and twangy acoustic guitar parts, they also pay homage to old favorites of theirs such as the Chicks.

“It’s reaching for a lot of things,” Franks explains, adding: “With anger being the underlying emotion.”

The fuel came from Franks’ first two years living in D.C. After earning a Bachelor of Arts in music technology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and interning at 9:30 Club for a summer, Franks moved to the District in April 2021. Their official arrival kicked off what Franks calls a “rough and rowdy” period full of “early 20s bullshit,” that included domestic abuse. 

“Learning what your boundaries are, what kind of people you want to be hanging around,” Franks elaborates. “There’s a lot to do with the transition from Salisbury—small town corn life—to big city Washington, D.C. … All of that culminated in these songs.”

Franks’ anger stands up to its full height on Corn’s caustic title track, which alludes to betrayals of trust by Salisbury friends as well by Salty Artist Management: The firm’s co-founder Chris Crowley signed Franks to a five-year deal shortly before shutting Salty down in response to sexual harassment allegations against him. The deal came about shortly after Franks independently released their Gabbo EP in 2020; it spurred Crowley to contact them with an offer. Given Salty’s work with clients such as Mitski and Jay Som, Franks was excited at the prospect of signing, recalling, “I was freaking out.” 

After having the contract reviewed by a friend, Franks agreed to have Salty rerelease Gabbo EP for a larger potential audience. In July of 2021, the rerelease came and went, and then Franks says Crowley essentially ghosted them for months. “I didn’t actually get the full detail of what was going on until my boss at 9:30 Club called. He was like, ‘Hey, so, I know you’re working with this guy. You shouldn’t.’” 

Salty folded that October, with Billboard reporting on the allegations against Crowley soon after. For Franks, that wasn’t quite the end of the story; in preparing to release Corn, they had to contact Crowley to get the EP rights transferred back to them. “It was still under their label, Honeycut [Records], so I had to text Chris and be like, ‘Hey, can you pull this shit down?’ And he was like, ‘Oh yeah! Yes, totally. Also, you’ve made $150. Do you want me to Venmo it?’” Franks laughs. “Like, what the fuck? Were you never gonna tell me?”

Franks got their $150 along with 100 unsold cassettes, the only tokens of their involvement with Salty—aside from the free Mitski shirt Franks received on signing. It’s the same shirt they vow to wear “like body armor” in the opening lines of “Corn.”

“I feel like when I wear it, it’s a big ‘fuck you’ to a lot of people,” they say.

To sidestep the messiness of the music business, Franks opted to release Corn independently. It’ll be available as a digital-only release on streaming platforms, on their personal Bandcamp page, and on the Bandcamp page of Gardenhead Records, the D.C.-based, not-for-profit label Franks’ partner and Moon By Moon bandmate Etai Fuchs founded in March of 2020. In the past, Gardenhead has earned write-ups from Pitchfork, Stereogum, and Uproxx for their charity compilation releases (which have featured artists such as Radiator Hospital, Deerhoof, and Dan Deacon), but Corn will be the label’s first conventional full-length album release.

“I don’t have any plans for physical, merch, anything like that. It’s more just like, I wanna get eyes on [Corn], and I know there are eyes on Gardenhead,” says Franks. “I don’t want to deal with any more bullshit, so I’m just doing it myself.”

In the face of everything else that’s gone on in the past two years, Franks speaks highly of the acceptance and respect they’ve found in the D.C. indie scene. “Growing up, I was really worried—I’m still kind dealing with this now—that no matter where I go, people are gonna think I’m dumb if I don’t play guitar well enough, or sing with enough oomph, or do what they want,” says Franks. “That’s not anything that I’ve experienced in D.C. It’s welcoming. It’s really fun.”

D.C. landmarks turn up all over the record: the track “To the country” name-checks Comet Ping Pong and “To Be Alone” samples the Mount Vernon Place church bells that chime just down the street from Franks’ workplace. The title track closes with a cell phone voice memo they recorded during the 2022 Supreme Court protests in response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. (“I literally fist-fought with Jacob Wohl,” Franks says, shadowboxing over the table.)

Later, on the tender, closing track, “Big,” clips from home recordings of parties with friends and holiday get-togethers with family filter in as if from another room. Samples throughout the record place Corn in its time and place—within the context of its political backdrop and the relationships, good and bad, that shaped it—but Gabbo views the project as a source of personal catharsis above all else.

“There’s a lot of things that I have suffered that I know many other people have suffered—the consequences of violence and manipulation and shitty things people experience. I feel like it’s relatable,” says Franks. “But also, I make music for me. I write in order to give myself a little therapy. It’s what I’ve always done since I was, like, 10 years old. I just gotta get it off my chest. Say it loud.” 

Franks says it loudest on the final stomp-and-chant verse of the title track when they belt, “Eat shit and die on the Fourth of July/ The corn will be as high as an elephant’s eye.” The second part of that line rings out as a defiant promise to keep standing tall; that’s the other thing the corn tattoo on their hand stands for.

“It’s a symbol of—I dunno—strength despite it all.”

Gabbo’s debut LP as a solo artist, Corn, is available to stream starting on May 5.